Voluntourism—volunteering as a tourist, usually abroad—has been getting some attention recently.

A recent blog post by a 21-year-old college student, making reference to her own experiences volunteering in the Dominican Republic while a student at a New England boarding school, denounced community service trips for students as selfish. Her father’s response in the New York Times provided a counterpoint, suggesting that students can only become “aware” by experiencing difference. Even more recently, a Boston Globe article reported on the pressure to participate in summer experiences that will look good on a college application. A memorable Times article from 2008 explored private schools’ unease with allowing expensive community service trips to count toward students’ community service requirements. Each of these articles stands on the shoulders of author Ivan Illich’s 1968 article, “To Hell with Good Intentions,” in which Illich questions the intentions of the “do-gooders” in Latin America, particularly the Peace Corps.

Some of you might already be signed up to work with elephants in Thailand, volunteer at an orphanage in Tanzania, or clean beaches in Costa Rica.

Where do these articles and arguments leave you? What if an article makes you reconsider? Here are a few thoughts.

For those of you considering a service trip, here are some things to think about:

There are a lot of organizations offering high school summer service trips. One way to distinguish between organizations is to consider not only your own experience on the trip, but also the ongoing relationship between the local communities and the organization. Does the organization have consistent contact with the community, or does it just show up periodically with American students in tow? Is the organization talking about collaborating with local communities, or does it suggest a one-sided relationship of helping and saving? Is the trip guided by specific learning objectives, or are you simply told that you’ll “have fun” while doing service? On the trip, would you stay with families, giving them the opportunity to be hosts and experts, or would you be isolated in comfortable lodging for foreigners? Who decides the service project? Note that not knowing the details of the service project before going abroad is not necessarily a bad thing. It could mean that the organization is genuinely waiting to find out what the local community wants, rather than imposing a project that someone else thinks is a good idea.

For those of you already committed to a service trip this summer, here are some things to consider:

First and foremost, don’t let someone else judge the experience for you before you even have it! Your trip might turn out to be amazing for everyone involved. You can increase the chances of this by being realistic and clear about your role and purpose on a service trip. Despite what the trip organizer’s marketing message may be, you are not going to save anyone on your trip. You’re also probably not going to be good at whatever you’re asked to do (e.g. construction, gardening, teaching, or organizing large groups of children). What you can do is arrive with an open mind and curiosity. You can show up as a human being ready to learn from another human being, not an American showing up to save a developing country. You can take risks by speaking in a foreign language or trying new food. You can show appreciation. You can ask people you meet what they’d like you to know about them or what message they’d like your community to know about theirs.

For those of you who have already gone on a service trip:

Whatever you do, tread lightly if you write about your experience in your college essay, and don’t talk about saving anyone! We’d encourage you to read the Boston Globe article cited above for some added perspective. Reflection on how the trip impacted you, not on how much you impacted other people, is likely to be most useful to colleges trying to get to know you.

Voluntourism will continue to be a controversial topic, and that’s okay.

When local communities feel exploited by volunteers, separation and stereotypes are reinforced. But, when the local community and the traveling volunteers feel valued, the experience can be transformative for both parties. We hope you find a way to feel great about what you give and what you gain from any experiences you might be lucky enough to have voluntouring.

Picture of Molly O'Connor

Molly O'Connor

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